Fire and Smoke Dampers: Is Your Building in Compliance?

March 1, 2008

Did you know that the inspection of fire and smoke dampers is required by the National Fire Protection Association's Life Safety Code?

With lack of resources being a continual challenge for the facilities manager, it's no wonder that many buildings are not in compliance with the Quincy, MA-based National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) Life Safety Code. Currently, the NFPA requires all non-healthcare facilities to have fire and smoke dampers inspected every 4 years to verify that they're operational. Buildings not presently in compliance with this code typically fall into two categories: those with facilities staff members who know the code exists, but lack the resources to complete the inspections, and those with staff members who don't even know that the NFPA requires the inspection of dampers.

Once armed with the knowledge that all dampers need to be inspected as mandated by the NFPA, this latter group of individuals tends to move quickly toward compliance. After all, safety is paramount, and keeping buildings in compliance is part of their job.

The real issue here lies with the individuals who know about the code's existence, but simply lack the resources to complete the inspection, both in terms of time and money. Facilities are perpetually running on a thin staff with widening demands. Damper inspections are indeed labor intensive and not an easy undertaking when attention needs to be directed toward more time-sensitive tasks (such as HVAC or plumbing repairs). The answer may be to search out a contractor who specializes in fire- and smoke-damper inspections to ease the burden and ensure a quality final product.

Initially, the code to inspect dampers was put into place because of the fires that occurred in Las Vegas hotels in 1980, which led to more than 80 fatalities. This number could have been substantially less if there were operable fire and smoke dampers. The U.S. government also commissioned a study on the World Trade Center disaster and found that, if the Twin Towers had more working smoke dampers, then the fumes that spread through the building might have been slowed down, possibly allowing for more people to escape. The dampers in your facility are there for a reason and, ultimately, the NFPA, the Intl. Code Council, and more and more insurance companies are requiring proof that your dampers have been inspected periodically to ensure that they're working properly.

While the inspection of fire and smoke dampers may be a cumbersome task for the facility's staff, the act is far from an exercise in futility. Like all requirements in the Life Safety Code, it is there for a reason - not simply to be done so you can say you're "in compliance." More importantly, it exists to minimize the risk from fire and, ultimately, protect the individuals in your building. The bottom line is that fire and smoke dampers are as important as any other fire-suppression device in your building. Don't let resources, or a lack thereof, stand in the way of saving lives: Inspect your fire and smoke dampers. 

Craig Rutledge is partner at Louisville, KY-based Life Safety Services LLC, which specializes in the inspection of fire and smoke dampers at facilities throughout the United States.

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